Scraps from American travels – New Orleans

It’s chaotic, and not at all like America.

Though it resembles ramshackle bits of Spain or Italy, it’s unmistakably French.

Music everywhere! The expected brass, but also jazz, blues, even French folk.

People wandering the streets with plastic glasses of beer, drunk already at 1pm.

Parties on balconies bedecked with beads, ribbons, banners. The colours of Mardi Gras, shine for a month-long bender.

Arguments breaking out as out-of-control kids throw beer down from their balconies onto performers in the street.

The place smells of sugar: praline shops, fudge, chocolate, and powder-covered beignets.

Bars are open to the street, the air balmy and soft on this February day. Chartres Street – most of the tourist chaos left behind on Decator and Canal – has that classic, French-quarter charm you read about. The square at the end of the street is like Paris – street art and performers.

I eat crawfish cakes with hot sauce.

A middle-aged couple order tall cocktails to go.

And Yoda just walked past with a storm trooper.

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Saying a long goodbye to my blog?

Just over three years ago I moved to the States. In a way it was good timing – I had just finished a PhD, there were no jobs in the offing, we were still young(ish) and many of our friends had moved out of London to start families. But it took a long time and a lot of stress to get the visa that would allow R to take up the job he had been offered. By the time we finally got it, after an entire morning at the American embassy I was rather too emotionally exhausted to feel the underlying fear very acutely.

The fear was there though. Because although we assured friends and family that it would only be 18 months, in reality I knew R would be very happy to extend it if everything went well. And I’d never been to the US before, and had no idea if I’d like it. And I had no idea if I’d get permission to work, or be able to find a job if I did. I had visions of myself drinking gin through the afternoon, waiting for R to come home, or, worse, learning to drive and then just taking off somewhere.

Happily I didn’t succumb to alcoholism. (In fact, it was a massive relief to me that in extremis my reaction is merely to eat too much, become slightly agoraphobic and then call a therapist.) And while I did learn to drive, this was towards the end of our tenure and a skill used more to take road trip vacations than to run away.

Perhaps I should have worried more about not being able to work. If nothing else my experience in America taught me how much work is central to my identity.

But mainly the things that I learnt from living in the States were positive. It confirmed that I like people, and can get on with pretty much anyone. I like travel and learning about other cultures and their histories. I like food, and drink and music, and respect these as cultures. I like the outdoors, and healthy(ish) living. And I aspire to live a balanced life.

Of course it’s been a challenge incorporating these aims into my life back home in London – I think we all aspire to a truly balanced life, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone who has achieved this. But I think I’m definitely friendlier to strangers, and more willing to travel frequently to see friends and family. We’ve also been trying to incorporate American food into our lives here. Making a big bowl of guacamole to have with the football (NFL) is essential for us now, and we’ve bought a small barbecue so we can continue to grill when it’s dry and warm(ish) out. I’m planning to write a post about eating American in London, so watch this space.

But really I’m finding it harder and harder to think about blogging. There are things I never got around to writing about – our love of baseball, our trips to New York – but it just seems like such a different world now. So my plan is to write what I can, when I can to cover off what I’ve missed, but to work to an end date.

In June this year we’re heading back to the US for a two-week road trip in the NW. It will be a year since we left to come home – we made it a year! – and that feels like a good point to end this blog. At least until the next big adventure…

Lost in the familiar – Repatriation musings

autopilot

This is another glimpse into my repatriation experience, written back in November 2016.

When I got back to London I kept walking the wrong way. Or stopping mid step, doubting my instinct. It was most embarrassing on the tube, when I had to wind my way through the labyrinth of ways not usually taken, walking what seemed like miles of additional distance to undo my mistake and get to the right tube line, going the right direction.

I couldn’t get lost in my thoughts and trust to autopilot anymore – it was like those first months in the States, where I had to concentrate every day to make sure I really was following the alphabetised streets in the right order. I’m not sure I ever got to the point there when I was completely sure of my direction when exiting the metro at Metro Center.

It was weirdest when I was back at the university where I used to study and teach. I knew I needed to get to the School office, which I remembered was on the third floor, but I couldn’t remember where the staircase was – quite an important detail to have slipped my mind! And then there was the TA room that I knew I could book for office hours; I knew it was a corner office – but which corner of the building? I remembered all the elements of where I used to teach, I just couldn’t remember the paths between them – how they fit together.

To some extent this translated into life too. We could go through the motions of our old life, but the motivations – the animating spirit – eluded us for a while. We’re not the same people we used to be. We had two years of different habits – habits which can’t be replicated over here – and they’ve changed us slightly. It’s a bit like @thesmult says, we’ve changed shape and it’s been difficult to fit back into our grooves.

But of course, the grooves haven’t stayed the same shape either. The epic reconstruction of London Bridge station is a case in point, and has led to me taking many new routes around London in order to avoid the chaos! Seeing that – finding the unfamiliar and the new in this life that on the surface is the same as we lived two years ago – is what’s helping. Our family and friends have been getting on with things (mainly having babies – apparently it was easier to give up alcohol when we weren’t around…) and we’ve been able to take on new roles in their lives.

On a much smaller level, there are quite a few new cafes/breweries/restaurants in London now, which are helping us to adapt some of our DC routines to fit the London context; and those great cultures of American football and Halloween have reached new heights of popularity since we’ve been away.

And after four months, I’ve finally stopped going the wrong way on the tube.

In my roundup of 2016 I mentioned the repatriation malaise or reverse culture shock I felt about 5-6 months after returning home. Here’s something I wrote at the time.

I do feel at home here. I know people say things like ‘you can never go back’ and that expats ‘never feel at home anywhere again’, but I’m feeling pretty welcomed back by London and my old life.

It’s weird to be back so completely – back in our flat, in our neighbourhood, friendship and family networks, and most of all, back at the university where I did my PhD and taught for four years. I’m even teaching a very similar course – the other day the course convenor referred to ‘last year’ as if I’d been here. I could very easily forget I’d been away at all.

I’m back working practically full time, thanks to two jobs, which is busy but makes me feel just like my old self. Which leads me to wonder, what on earth was I doing with myself for 18 and a bit months in the States. And who on earth was I?

 

Women’s Health in the States

Another post written last year in the States, before we came back to the UK. Of course this was also during the Obama care era, so things will probably change…

After about 15 months living over here I finally had to find someone to refill my birth control medication. Thanks to an understanding GP in the UK and a couple of visits home I’d managed for about nine months without having to negotiate the US health system, but after that I realized I’d have to make a start at finding a doctor.

I knew that in the States people can choose their own specialist and don’t need a referral from a GP. It’s actually not essential to have a GP – many of whom are known as internalists (specialists in internal medicine). (What’s external medicine I wonder…?) I then found out that the medical insurance we have, from the company that is sponsoring R’s visa, allows us to access either doctors who are in their network, or to go ‘out of network’ without any financial penalty. So now I almost had too much choice as to what sort of doctor/practice to go to, and no real way of knowing how to make the best choice.

I spent probably the best part of an hour scouring the list of in-network gynecologists (or OB GYNs), looking them up on the map, checking to see if there were reviews on Yelp – as if I were choosing a restaurant – and cross-checking with a good online medical service I found called ZocDoc. Weirdly there didn’t seem to be many OB GYNs in DC itself, so I found myself choosing between going to Bethesda in Maryland or North Arlington in Virginia. Based on distance from the metro, some nice Yelp reviews, and availability I chose my practitioner. It hardly seemed the best way to choose – using the same comparison site I use to find good pizza – but at least a decision had been made.

And I have been thoroughly satisfied – and not a little surprised – by my experiences. My doctor works for an outfit called the Physicians and Midwives Collaborative Practice, which I immediately liked the sound of. The office is very clean, modern and comfortable. Everyone is very friendly – more than one of them calls me ‘dear’ (though this is less affectionate and more like a conversational tic). Best of all, I’ve not been charged a co-pay on either of my visits.

The first time I went simply to get a refill of my prescription, though I knew there was a possibility I might have to get an exam (I’ve heard that this is more common in the States). They were good about getting a pretty complete history and wrote me a prescription for 3 months without an exam, on the condition that I make an appointment for a full physical. I had taken my British medication and the information leaflet with me so that the doctor could find an American equivalent, and she made an effort to find a generic version that was as close to mine as possible. As I said, I didn’t have to pay anything that visit, and while my insurance company makes me pay for my prescriptions up-front, I can claim back the full cost.

The second appointment came round and I turned up largely unconcerned – I don’t personally find these screenings at all problematic and actually have more anxiety about having my blood pressure taken (which obviously doesn’t help with the result!). But it turned out there are quite a few differences in practice between the UK and the US! Mostly in the UK the procedure has been done by a nurse, or maybe a nurse practitioner. Only the necessary clothes have had to be removed, and it’s been carried out on a normal GP bed.

Over here – in this practice at least – all clothes had to be removed and I was given a full-on hospital gown, in which I waited for my doctor. Thankfully I’d brought a book, and after about quarter of an hour she arrived. We had a conversation about my plans (or not) to have children, in which it was suggested that at my age I might want to look into getting my eggs frozen(!), and then there was the awkward getting into position on the gynecological table with stirrups that I’d seen in so many American TV shows. After some poking and prodding of various glands, the smear was reassuringly familiar, and after this I was ready to be getting up and heading home. So I was somewhat taken aback to find myself being pushed and prodded further, as she apparently examined my reproductive organs! I finally understand the joke about how gynecologists should probably buy you dinner before the exam – she now knows my uterus better than I do!

Again though, I was pleasantly surprised by not being asked to pay anything for this experience. I have read that recent changes in healthcare law have made all these sort of preventative health appointments free of any upfront charges – the entire cost being covered by the insurance company [Ed – thanks for the memories Obama!]. This must be a good thing in terms of detecting problems sooner as I can imagine that the idea of having to pay for a screening would be that extra reason not to go as regularly as you should. I’d also be genuinely interested to know whether the more invasive and thorough physical exam leads to cancers being found more quickly in the US than in the UK.

In any case, I survived my first experiences with American OB GYNs, and next time at least there should be fewer surprises!